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Some rules are made to be broken. Eating dessert before the main course is certainly justified in the case of a bodybuilder who has recently completed a 16-week diet to prep for a competition. And surfing the Internet for March Madness scores during work hours is defensible when you’ve got $50 riding on an underdog like Georgia Tech making it to the Final Four. Likewise, when you read training articles that implore you to train through a full range of motion, fuhgedaboudit!
Of course, there’s a time and place for full-range-of-motion training, but when you’re trying to bust through a sticking point that’s put the skids on your training progress, you need partial reps so you can reap big-time muscle gains.
Partial reps are just that – a portion of a complete repetition that requires the muscle to work in a shortened range of motion (ROM). Partials can begin from either the bottom or the top of a repetition, moving only a quarter, half or three-quarters of the way through a full ROM. Within this feature, we explore how to execute partials on the squat, bench press and preacher curl.
Partial reps allow you to train around a “sticking point” – that part of the ROM where the weight feels the heaviest – by working the areas of a muscle that haven’t been exhausted yet, which can lead to additional muscle growth. For example, after you do eight reps of heavy biceps curls and can’t complete another full rep, you could 1) put the weight down and end your set, or 2) continue the set by doing partials over the beginning half of the ROM.
Here’s why it works: When you reach failure on a particular repetition, you can’t move the weight past the sticking point because of muscle fatigue. But that doesn’t mean other areas within the full ROM are equally affected; in fact, you can still bang out reps over smaller portions of the ROM, like at the beginning or even the end of the rep. This way you can work beyond failure, in a sense, taking the muscle to further exhaustion.
Alternatively, partial reps can be used to increase overall strength when you significantly overload the weight and train through only a shortened ROM. This gives you more power and force to move through the weaker parts of a lift, like the bottom part of a bench press. Powerlifters, arguably the strongest guys on the planet, regularly use partial reps to increase their strength in the bench press, squat and deadlift. And a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that when experienced lifters performed only partials in the bench press for 10 weeks, they gained as much strength in the full-ROM bench press as those who trained using full reps.
Of course, we’re not saying that you shouldn’t complete full-range reps in your training. You absolutely should – that’s the basis of symmetrical and balanced muscle growth. However, adding a high-intensity technique like partials to your workout for several weeks at a time can help increase your muscle strength and size, and finally get you off that training plateau.
One way to use partials is in a progression, which over time will allow you to increase your max. To increase your squatting capacity, complete your regular working sets, then set the blocks in a squat rack 4-6 inches below your full leg extension level at the top. Increase the weight by about 20% over your working weight, then do 2-3 sets of 4-6 partial reps in this shortened range of motion over the top part of the movement. In the following weeks, slowly lower the blocks 2 inches at a time from the top, and before long, you’ll be squatting full ROM with a heavier weight.
You can train with partials both at the top and bottom of a rep, and you should hit both at least once during a workout. “Training partial reps from the bottom of a motion can give you better starting strength, and training from the top will give you more power to finish a rep,” Sandler notes. For both portions, use a Smith machine or power rack in which you can set the stop blocks to arrest the motion of the bar. For bottom partials, set the blocks about 6 inches above your chest; for top partials, set them about 6 inches below lockout. If you don’t have a squat rack or Smith machine, recruit a spotter to make sure you’re working in the correct range of motion, because you’re pretty fatigued by this time.
Once you complete your full-ROM working sets, position the blocks for the top set of partial repetitions and increase the resistance by about 20% over your working bench-pressing weight. “You’re trying to increase strength here, so you want to push the limits of what you can do,” says Sandler. This increase in weight calls for a decrease in reps, so shoot for 3-6 partials for each segment of the lift. When training from the top, lower the weight toward your body, let the bar just touch – not rest on – the blocks, then immediately press it back up to full arm extension. Don’t rest the bar on the blocks or pause at lockout at any time, both of which take the tension off the working muscles.
After completing one set of partials in the top position, reset the blocks for the lower part. Press the weight up to tap the blocks, then lower it to touch your chest without allowing it to rest or bounce off.
While the previous two methods require you to add weight and do additional sets, another way to use partials is to add them onto the end of a set. Say you’re doing preacher curls, and you take a given weight to failure at eight reps. Instead of ending your set, contract your bi’s to bring the weight as high as you can, and do 3-4 reps over this shortened ROM. This is best done with machines or a spotter.
For all partial reps, correct form is imperative. “There should never be momentum when training with partials,” says Sandler. And unless you’re a powerlifter or professional bodybuilder like Gunter, Sandler advises restricting your use of partials to four-week segments with at least four weeks of rest before using them again. “At the end of four weeks, you should see a pretty significant increase in strength, but don’t overdo it,” he warns. Use other techniques like drop sets, supersets and forced reps to increase workout intensity until you can do partials again.